Dirty Secrets of a Writers Group
As George Collias reminds us from Earnest Hemingway: "Write drunk, edit sober,"
Or was it Dylan Thomas? I don't remember.
Thinking of writing that book that has been buzzing in your head, but don't know where to start? Google "Writing your first book" and you'll find around 690,000,000 hits, some of which may even be useful. Helping new writers is big, big business.
You may come across the suggestion to join a writers group. Helping writers of all ages and genres is a basic premise of most writer's groups, many of which are listed in the Arts and Entertainment section of your Sunday newspaper. Internet searches show local writers groups and most public libraries can usually point you to a writers group in your area as well. Writers groups usually welcome new writers with enthusiasm and understanding, they are glad to see you taking that first step.
While you will welcomed by the members of a writers group, do not expect them – almost all of whom have other day jobs – to dedicate their priceless time at a writers group meeting just for you, at least not more than once. Almost everyone in a writers group will help a new writer as best they can, from writing and editing, to proofreading and suggestions about publication. A new member may even find a mentor who will take them under their wing. However, if you are looking for free editing for your book or novel, you're wasting their time and yours as well.
Writers groups vary in their format, with some groups welcoming all writing while others are designed for a specific genre such as poetry or novels or non-fiction narrative. Don't expect in-depth discussion of your historical fiction novel at a poetry writers group. A good writers group will help define the writing process and help develop the mechanical and technical skills that allows new writers express themselves while understanding most writers do not have a bachelor's degree in English or a Masters in Fine Arts.
Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For English Class
I was once told a writer who doesn't have a grasp of grammar is like a color-blind person trying to paint a portrait. If you are offended when someone points out spelling errors in your manuscript, or your grammar is horrendous, you might want to try something besides writing, Unless, of course, you have a really great friend who likes to edit. A good dictionary will do wonders for your acceptance in a writers group. If you don't bother with spell checking, you're off to a bad start unless you are a really gifted story-teller. You don't have to be a great typist to be a writer. A few writers I know still write in longhand and have someone else transcribe their work. Often that typist is also an editor of some sort.
I’ve found several writers groups that minutely dissect pre-submitted writings. Each group member gives his or her critique, allowing the writer the final few minutes to defend or explain their writing. I’ve found the defense is usually embarrassing or frustrating for the writer, who almost always thanks the group for their honest opinions, then never show up again. I find these meetings offer little in the way of inspiration or encouragement. William K. Zinsser, in the introduction to the 7th edition of his revised and updated "On Writing Well" writes: "My concerns as a teacher have also shifted. I'm more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing – confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity – and I've written new chapters on those values."
Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For Professional Counseling
There isn't much sympathy in most writer's groups for personal or political vendettas, e.g., it was all his/her fault and the world needs to know what a bad person he/she really is and you all are going to sit here while I read chapter after chapter of this agonizing diatribe. Many writers get that personal story off their chests and find they don't have a second book in them, which leads to the question; Why do you want to write? Are you telling a story? A personal memoir or an autobiography? Are you planning on making a fortune writing? Well, good luck, I know hundreds of writers but only a few who call it a profession. So, whom are you writing for? Who is your target audience?
If you are writing an autobiography, which is the usual genre for new writers, there are only two scenarios for your looming masterpiece: A; You are already famous and people may actually buy the autobiography, or, B; You are just like the rest of us and nobody cares. If you fall into the first category, you probably don't need a writers group, your book will probably grabbed by a publishing house. If you fall into the second category, however, the writers group probably doesn't want to read it. They’ll help you write it, and they’ll do their best to encourage you, but don’t expect to impress a seasoned group of writers enough to make them want to hear all your details. You may find even your relatives won't read your manuscript. They will tell you they will read it when they get a chance, but they won't, although they may skim through it to see what you wrote about them.
The best advice for new writers is to finish your autobiography and put it on a thumb-drive. Put it away until you're famous and can update it. Now sit down and write for fun, write because you enjoy writing. Write because you have a story to tell, you know, the one you have been thinking about for years. Then bring it to a writers group and read it out loud in front of people you don't know. New writers are often cloaked by intimidation or insecurities as they venture into an unfamiliar world that glaringly exposes their shortcomings and lack of experience. That bravado usually crumbles quickly in front of a writers group. You may want at least a warm, comfortable feeling with the group before exposing your soul, but when you do read in front of a writer’s group read only enough to make them want to hear more.
Many writers will at one time or another inadvertently revert to writing about personal experiences. The memories are often painful and unexpectedly personal. Writing is often cathartic, especially for new writers. While an insensitive writer's group might dampen a new writer's candid honesty, most members understand the self-discovery process. Shared experiences can become part of the camaraderie of a writers group, but don't overdo it. Constant repetition of personal problems is a sure way to shut off a receptive group of listeners anywhere, much less a writers group.
Make Them Beg For More, Not Mercy
I had the pleasure of watching members develop and grow into marvelously entertaining writers during the several years I was the Sarasota Writers Group Leader for the Florida Writers Association. However, I've also watched people attend several meetings, then drop off, either discouraged or disappointed in what they found, or in some cases, what they didn't find.
I have been asked what the difference is between a writer and an author. I've been told that authors have published books. I argue many books by celebrity authors are actually written by ghost writers. To me, an author is the visionary or creator of an idea to be conveyed, while the writer is the conveyor of that vision or concept to print. It follows that most authors are writers. A writer may do journals, blogs, newspaper columns, or magazine articles or any other form of written communication. A writer to me is someone who puts words into print to convey thought.
You are displaying your descriptive powers, or your wit, to a group of like minded individuals asking for their response. There isn't enough time at any meeting to listen to more than five hundred words or several pages of material from any one writer unless it is a special writing. It only takes several hundred words to appreciate a writing style or the dialog between characters. Listening to someone read page after page of their own work can be like listening to a children’s violin recital.
I have watched people join our writer's group and grow beyond their expectations, and conversely, I've seen talented writers drop by the wayside, discouraged or disappointed with their work. Many new writers take critique of their writing as criticism, and unfortunately, depending on the critiquer, sometimes it is. A new writer must be thick-skinned when submitting work for critiquing, but at the same time be open to change if the criticism is valid. Being poorly critiqued has probably discouraged more aspiring authors than any other single factor. Most critiques I've read are given in good faith, meant to improve the caliber of the work under review. Unfortunately, critiques are a direct reflection of the talents and skills of the critiquer. I've seen great writing attacked because the critiquer was simply repulsed by the subject. It is often hard for those who aren't professional editors to separate the stimulus to an emotional response from the writing that triggered it.
Often religious or political viewpoints become the focus of the critique instead of the writing itself. Novels in the sexual realms tend to be fire-starters. I can only imagine what kind of responses E L James would have gotten with her Fifty Shades of Grey from most writers groups I’m familiar with. The book, in my opinion, could have used the help of a good writers group. Sir Salman Rushdie said about the book: "I've never read anything so badly written that got published." I doubt James would have abandoned her book because of a bad writers group critique, but good critique could have definitely have helped the quality of her writing. The fine line is critiquing the quality of the writing itself as opposed reacting to the emotionally charged nature of the subject.
Critiques are often ego based, or subconsciously prejudiced, and those are deadly to a new writer. I can read anonymous critiques from members of our group and tell who wrote it by the style of the critique. Alan Sherman wrote a parody of Peter and the Wolf, performed by the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, and one line from the work has stuck with me since I heard it almost fifty years ago: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." That's exactly what happens when several critiques vary in their assessment of a given work. The writer being critiqued doesn't know which way to go or which path to follow to improve their writing. I was once critiqued for using too many adjectives in a manuscript while another critiquer in the same group said the writing was bland and needed better descriptions. One friend attends several writers groups, and much to his dismay, can't satisfy any two of them with any one piece of writing. One group felt a narrative he wrote was flippant, distasteful, childish, while the other group thoroughly enjoyed the same piece of work.
Writers Groups Are Basically Mutual Admiration Societies
If you read in front of the group, be polite enough to listen to others who read their material. After all, they were polite enough to listen to you. If you head for the door as soon as you're finished reading, don't expect the welcome mat to be out when you return.
Don't let your speaking style detract from your writing. If you sound like you're reading the telephone book when you are reading Steinbeck out loud, have someone else to read your material to the group. We have a regular member who is in demand to read other people's work. Her interpretation and inflection when reading makes even the aforementioned telephone book a pleasure to listen to. I recently read a member's final proof and was astounded to find I was intrigued by the book as I had a hard time following it during the readings. Every reader embeds their own images and emotions on the material they read, which may be quite different from someone else’s interpretation, even the author’s intent. Don't expect an audience to cheer your first attempt at explaining how you developed nuclear fission if you, like me, read out loud like Elmer Fudd. Get a good speaker, or hand out enough printed copies so your audience can read for themselves.
I've attended writers groups that follow a specific reading and critiquing format almost religiously, often intent on developing writers in a competitive environment such as winning awards for the group members. Other groups tend to mix up the readings with presentations from outside guests, from published authors to publishers and editors while critiquing is done separately from the meetings. Comments are almost always called for after a reading so a writer has immediate feedback on their work. Every group is different in its makeup and purpose and rarely are there any fees associated with writers groups. If the group you visit doesn't offer the education or experiences you are looking for, try another group.
You Can't Please All Readers
I have one piece of advice for new writers: It is your story and you are the one telling it! Write it your way and let your writing reflect your heart and your soul. You are the artist and this is your medium. I like my own writing, I can read it for hours and I'm sure you can read your own writing for hours as well. Bring it to the next writer's group meeting, well, five hundred words of it at least, and see if others hear it as you meant it. Don't be discouraged if the group you meet doesn't like your writing. Take the criticism and find another group and see if they accept your style and content. Arthur Godfrey once famously said, "Some people just don't like ice cream." As long as you please those you are writing for, you are by my standards a successful writer.
My favorite group likes vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, and just about every other flavor of ice cream, but every once in a while, someone brings in a delicious upside-down cake instead.